By BETSY Z. RUSSELL
BOISE — They faced off in the race for governor in 2010 as the nominees of opposing parties, but Butch Otter and Keith Allred are joining together this week to promote a new effort to get citizens across the country to come together on a non-partisan basis and push national leaders for positive change.
Allred was the founder of The Common Interest, a group that pushed a similar agenda in Idaho starting in 2005, bringing together more than 1,500 Idahoans to analyze issues facing the Idaho Legislature. Once two-thirds of the members agreed on a position, Allred lobbied for it to lawmakers. Results included the 2006 law that tied Idaho’s homeowner’s exemption from property taxes to ups and downs in the real estate market; it was in effect until lawmakers repealed it in 2016, but bipartisan legislation this year proposed re-introducing it.
Allred, at the group’s urging, also pushed for election reform, open meetings, tax changes and fairness in state transportation policy, with some notable successes.
Now, the former Harvard professor and Idaho native is expanding his effort nationwide through a program called “CommonSense American,” which advocates for “government by the people.” Like The Common Interest, it is bringing together citizens from all parties and views to review and select issues. If two-thirds of the members agree on a position, the group will advocate for it with Congress and the executive branch.
Allred is also the new executive director of the National Institute for Civil Discourse, a position he started on Jan. 1. The institute liked his CommonSense American idea so much it hired him and made CommonSense American one of the institute’s four programs.
Allred said he first contacted Otter about the effort in the fall, when Otter was still governor. “I think we’ve always gotten along,” Allred said. “I think we’ve both shared that we can be frank about our differences and treat each other with respect, that those aren’t at odds with each other. You can do both.”
Allred told Otter about the new national position he was taking on, “and that I thought there might be some ways that he and I could work together. I thought that that would send a strong signal, that we can be frank about our disagreements with each other and still be respectful and even friendly about it.”
At the time, Otter told Allred he was interested, but was still working on what his post-governor’s office life would look like. The two stayed in touch. And on Friday, they’ll appear together at a public event at Boise State University, along with Olympic gold medalist Kristin Armstrong and others, to discuss the new national effort. The 7 p.m. event in the Simplot Ballroom of the Student Union Building is free and open to the public; attendees are asked to register in advance if they’d like to participate.
Allred is a fifth-generation Idahoan who holds a degree in American history from Stanford and a Ph.D in organizational behavior from UCLA. He taught leadership, with specialties in negotiation, conflict resolution, persuasion and individual and group decision making, at Columbia University and then at the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard, where he was the school’s first professor of negotiation and conflict resolution. He then returned to Idaho to raise his family. In January, he moved to Washington, D.C., to take on his new national role.
Allred said he always intended for The Common Interest to be at the national level, but thought he should start at the state level first — so he “piloted” the program in Idaho.
“Nobody knows what that model is as well as Idahoans do,” he said.
Though he was an independent, he was recruited by Idaho Democrats to be their 2010 gubernatorial nominee against incumbent Otter, who was seeking his second term. Allred promptly named a Republican, longtime Kimberly Sen. Laird Noh, as his campaign’s honorary co-chair, along with Idaho Democratic icon and former Idaho Gov. Cecil Andrus.
However, he fell to Otter in the 2010 general election with just 32.9 percent of the vote to Otter’s 59.1 percent — a fairly typical outcome in recent years in a state in which Republicans control every statewide office, every seat in the congressional delegation and more than 80 percent of the seats in the state Legislature.
Afterward, Allred said he’d focus on business consulting work for several years, but said he still hoped to expand The Common Interest nationwide.
In 2016, while doing business consulting that had him meeting with everyone from warehouse crews to truck drivers to executives, Allred said, “I was just hearing a political discussion at a level that I hadn’t before. People were talking more about politics, people who weren’t political. … And it was all about how frustrated they were — left, right or center, they were frustrated.”
That told him the time was right to take his Common Interest idea nationwide, he said. He finished a book he was writing at the time and formed a non-profit. Then about a year ago, the National Institute for Civil Discourse contacted him and suggested bringing his project into the institute and also becoming its new head.
That institute is the same one that led civility training for the entire Idaho Legislature in 2016, the first time it had worked with an entire state legislature at once. The institute also held an Idaho Civility Summit in Boise in 2016, at which participants included now-Gov. Brad Little.
The National Institute for Civil Discourse was formed in 2011 after the shooting that injured Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords and 12 others and killed six people, all of whom were participating in a public “Congress on Your Corner” event in Tucson.
Based at the University of Arizona, the institute’s national advisory board has included such luminaries as the late former President George H.W. Bush and former President Bill Clinton; former Secretaries of State Madeleine Albright and Gen. Colin Powell; former South Dakota Sen. Thomas Daschle; former EPA Administrator and New Jersey Gov. Christine Todd Whitman; and former Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O’Connor.
Allred said he hoped his CommonSense American group, which launched a national digital campaign for citizen members in January, could get 1,000 by June. Instead, it’s already got nearly 3,000, including members from every state, and will launch its first issues-selection process in late May or early June.
Otter, a Republican, couldn’t be reached for comment by press time on Monday.
Allred said, “We might be different on various policy issues, but we’re shoulder to shoulder on this republic and what makes it work, and we’ve got to be able to engage our differences productively.”